As we prepare to celebrate the feast of Saint Blaise next week I am reminded of a chapter in my book “What’s the Smoke for. And other Burning Questions about the Liturgy.” In it I recount how I was approached by someone who described herself as a new Catholic. She mentioned she had noticed how the priest placed candles around people’s throat while whispering something she could not understand. She found it all too strange and decided not to participate.
This made me think of the many rituals we have which might seen strange to people who are unfamiliar with them, and even to some of us who have celebrate them, year after year.
Of course, the woman who approached me must have attended Mass on February 3rd, the feast of St. Blaise, a 4th C. bishop and martyr. On that day we have the traditional blessing of the throats. And just to be clear, the words the priest used while he placed the candles around people’s throat were: “Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, Bishop and martyr may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and any other illness. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The little we know about St. Blaise comes from descriptions of the lives of saints which were written several centuries after his death. From these writings we learn that Blaise was a celebrated medical doctor when he was elected as bishop of Sebastea, Armenia, today’s Sivas, Turkey. He was brutally martyred around 316 during a wave of Christian persecution.
From the 6th C. on in the East and the 8th C. in the West the intercession of St. Blaise was invoked by people who were ill. By the 12th C. St. Blaise had become one of the most popular saints in Western Europe.
Two stories told about St. Blaise relate to the custom of blessing throats. According to the first story a distraught mother rushed her child to St. Blaise. The child was choking on a fishbone. After St. Blaise said a prayer the fishbone dislodged and the child was saved. Based on this miracle the intercession of St. Blaise is invoked when suffering from ailments of the throat as well as to prevent such ailments.
According to the second story a poor widow’s pig had been saved from a wolf by St. Blaise. Out of gratitude the widow brought 2 candles to prison so St. Blaise could have some light in his dark cell. Blaise is often depicted with two candles held together by a red ribbon. The red ribbon refers to the martyrdom suffered by St. Blaise. Based on this two candles tied together with a red ribbon are used during the blessing of the throats.
Even in our postmodern society, which is suspicious of any hint of superstition this blessing like many other similar rites remains popular among Catholics. They are the visible signs of a deep yet invisible reality. The blessing of the throats is a tangible reminder of God’s healing and saving presence among us. It is also an acknowledgement that we entrust ourselves to God’s providential care.
So, will you join us for Mass at 7:00am or noon on February 3 this year?